On the first day of the Lenten season we are marked with ashes as the priest utters words in shades of what God said after the Fall of Man: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of ashes in unlike any other liturgical ritual – what is the origin of this distinctive solemn ceremony?
The earliest liturgical usage of ashes is seen in the Old Testament representing mortality, mourning, and penance. Daniel and Job both repented by covering themselves in ashes and wearing sackcloth.
“Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” – Job 42:6
“I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” – Daniel 9:3
This penitential practice of covering oneself with ashes was even recognized by Jesus in his reproaches to the unrepentant towns.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes.” – Matthew 11:21
The tradition of ashes being used to symbolize penance was continued and emboldened as seen in very earliest days of the Church. In the Church Doctor Tertullian’s treatise On Repentance, he writes that confession should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes:
“It commands the penitent to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed.” – On Repentance, Ch. 9
Church historian Eusebius attests to the practice, recounting how a repentant apostate begged Pope Zephyrinus to be readmitted into communion.
“He put on sackcloth and covered himself with ashes, and with great haste and tears he fell down before Zephyrinus, the bishop, rolling at the feet not only of the clergy, but also of the laity; and he moved with his tears the compassionate Church of the merciful Christ.” – Church History V, 28 § 12
Giving ashes to all the Faithful to signify the beginning of the season of penitence in Lent then arose from the common practice of donning ashes as a general sign of penance. The earliest known record of an “Ash Wednesday” comes from Ælfric the Homilist circa 991 A.D.:
“In the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
By the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of lent. In 1091 A.D., Pope Urban II at the Synod of Benevento ordered the custom extended to the Church in Rome and all places.
The custom of accompanying the imposition of ashes with saying “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is traditionally credited to Pope Gregory I the Great. Taken from the words spoken to Adam and Eve after the Fall of man, it reminds us of our sinfulness and mortality.